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The story of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture

Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture
Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture

If you are looking for one of the most rousing pieces of all time, a good place to start is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (and we have versions for 30 instruments and ensembles to choose from). Written to celebrate the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812, it ends in a satisfying blaze of brass, cannon fire and bells. Whilst its effect is undeniable the piece has, however, had its issues and controversies over the years—Tchaikovsky was famously dismissive of it, the first performance was not nearly so rousing as intended and its bombast has made it the subject of both criticism and parody.

Unusual instrumentation

The work is written for a standard sized symphony orchestra, but the final section includes parts for cannon shots, church bells and an additional brass band using ‘any extra brass instruments’ available.

Commissioned to celebrate a cathedral completion, but performed in a tent

The piece was written to celebrate the completion of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow, which had been built to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon by Russia in 1812. Whilst the first performance was planned, in accordance with the score, to include cannon fire and church bells this was eventually deemed over-ambitious. The church itself was also not completed in time, so Tchaikovsky’s piece was performed in more low-key fashion in a tent next to the building.
The Church of Christ the Saviour [Source: Wikipedia]

Later performances have often sought to reinstate the lavish orchestration and even augment it with the addition of choral parts. Here’s final section of Zubin Mehta’s epic performance, for example:

Tchaikovsky mixed up his patriotic motives

The piece makes use of patriotic melodies to represent the two warring parties. The Russians are represented by folk songs that include U Vorot’ (‘At the Gate’) ...

...and the prayer ‘Tropar Krestu’:

These are heard simply before symbolically entering into musical conflict with the French, represented by the ‘La Marseillaise.’ Ironically, though this melody had become the French National Anthem in 1795, Napoleon actually banned it in 1805, so it would have played no part in the Russian campaign of 1812.

As the Russian forces finally triumph, the work ends with a blazing statement of the Russian Anthem “God Save the Tsar!’ (‘Bozhe, Tsarya khrani!,’).

This anthem too is problematic, since it did not in exist in 1812, there being no official Russian anthem until 1815.

The Church it was written for was intentionally blown up

The Church of Christ the Saviour had a tragically short existence. The Russian Revolution of 1917 led to an anti-religious campaign that included the destruction of a great number of church buildings, including Christ the Saviour, which was demolished in 1931.
The demolition of the Church of Christ the Saviour in 1931 [Source: Wikipedia]

Following the collapse of communism the building was reconstructed on the same site in the 1990s.

A money-spinning triumph

Tchaikovsky was dismissive of the work, calling it ‘.. very loud and noisy, but [without] artistic merit, because I wrote it without warmth and without love.’ Despite this, or perhaps because of it, it was the biggest money-spinner for the Tchaikovsky estate, since it has always been the most performed and recorded of his works.

It has been frequently parodied, adapted and reused.

The work has been widely used in popular culture, in movies such as 'V for Vendetta', 'Night of Fear' and 'Sonic the Hedgehog 2', as entrance music for professional wrestler Claudio Castagnoli, on TV in an episode of British drama Agatha Christie’s Poirot and in many other contexts. It was also been adapted in to a choral version by the Swingle Singers in 1989 and into a rock version by The Invincible Czars in 2012.

It’s bombast has also made it the subject of criticism, with some considering the final section tastelessly excessive, and political controversy, with many orchestras withdrawing performances of it in the wake of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Others have chosen to parody the work, including Malcom Arnold in his ‘A Grand, Grand Overture,’ which includes parts for 4 rifles, three Hoover vacuum cleaners and an electric floor polisher…

…and P.D.Q Bach (aka Peter Schickele) in his 1712 Overture…